Among life’s big questions, few are as pressing as the existence of free will. Nearly every great philosopher, from Aristotle to Popper, has offered his opinion on the matter. A confirmation or denial of free will’s existence has major ramifications not just on the ivory tower conversations among academics, but also in the day-to-day interactions of all human beings. Without free will, moral responsibility can easily be explained away, as it has no basis in the cosmic order. Modern thinkers, like the psychologist Michael Gazzaniga, relegate the obligation of responsibility to the collective instead of the individual. They go even farther by calling free will an illusion. In contrast, Medieval Christian thinkers like Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, understood that God’s elaborate system of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso is predicated on each person’s free choice to sin or repent. More specifically, Dante recognized the danger of reducing responsibility to a societal construction. This essay will demonstrate that free will, and thus moral responsibility, must exist if systems of law (both man-made and ecclesiastical) are to be considered just. Moreover, these systems are necessary if we are to maintain societies that are fit for human beings.

In Inferno, Dante links together moral responsibility and the post-mortem divine judgment based solely on freely chosen human action through Guido’s abdication of personal responsibility and his subsequent damnation. Pope Boniface VIII promises Guido earthly glory and eternal salvation if he defrauds in service to the Papacy. Guido agrees, mostly out of cowardice, and falsely promises amnesty to Boniface’s enemies, the Colonna family. Ultimately, the Colonna family, as well as its innocent subjects, are slaughtered by Boniface’s forces at Palestrina (a town east of Rome). God’s condemnation of Guido and his fraudulence is representative of Dante’s understanding of justice. In this system, a person is either saved or damned. This decision rests solely on the actions that the individual undertook freely while living on Earth. If we accept God’s judgment as just, then we must admit the existence of free will. We recognize that human agents are free to “choose a course of action from among various alternatives,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Free Will).  Thus, the reverse must also be true: God can hold individuals accountable for freely chosen actions. God’s judgment is only just because people are morally responsible for their actions. The logical progression from free will, to moral responsibility, to righteous judgment is undeniable.

As is characteristic of most sinners in Inferno, Guido refuses to take responsibility for his transgression; he doesn’t observe the unbreakable connection between free will, personal responsibility, and judgment. He explains, “My belief would have been fulfilled / had it not been for the high priest, may evil take / him! Who put me back into my first sins,” (Canto XXVII, 69-71). To Guido, the blame falls squarely on the Pope’s shoulders; he claims that he was merely following orders. However, to Dante and to God, the free agent is solely responsible for his actions; citing coercive circumstances in an attempt to explain away a sin is unacceptable, even damnable.

Gudio Image

A depiction of Guido da Montefeltro entitled, “The struggle on the Dead Guido da Montefeltro” by Joseph Anton Koch.

Dante includes other examples of damned souls who attempt to direct the blame for sin away from themselves, which further strengthen the connection between free will and individual responsibility. In Canto V of Inferno, Francesca da Rimini claims her freedom to act was constricted by love’s coercive power; as with Guido, this defense proves inadequate in the eyes of God. As Dante passes by the “bristling and snarling Minos” (Canto V, 4), he witnesses the souls of the lustful doomed to hell. He speaks with Francesca, a young woman who kisses her husband’s younger brother. Francesca’s husband, it must be said, was no paragon of beauty; Gianciotto Malatesta (Lame John) was infirm and a good deal older than Francesca. He discovers Francesca with his younger brother Paolo and kills the two lovers in a fit of rage. Francesca laments to Dante that the kiss was not a freely chosen course of action, but inspired from love. She claims that her actions were motivated by “Love, which pardons no one loved from loving in return […] Love led us one to one death,” (Canto V, 103/106). The power of love compelled her to sin; she was powerless to escape external circumstance. Francesca and Paolo read moving verse about Lancelot’s amorous escapades, which only intensified love’s influence on their actions. Dante is so affected by Francesca’s defense that he faints and falls “as a dead body falls,” (Canto V, 142). God is not so easily convinced. Francesca is damned to the 2nd circle of hell, the circle of the lustful. Despite influential, perhaps even coercive, factors that compel us toward sin, we still freely choose it and are nonetheless responsible. God does not damn the poetry or the emotional abstract (in this case, love) for Francesca’s transgression. Thus, her folly and God’s subsequent judgment is predicated on freely chosen action and personal responsibility.

What happens when personal responsibility is abdicated and other agents are falsely blamed? We return to Canto XXVII: Guido’s refusal to accept personal responsibility didn’t just damn his own soul, but it also led to the massacre of thousands of innocent people. Tragedies occur in a culture that divorces responsibility from the individual and the well being of society is negatively impacted. In such a culture, self-deception – made easier when accountability is abdicated – is also more likely. Guido deludes himself into thinking salvation is attainable if he only follows the (immoral, damnable) advice of the Pope. He tricks himself into thinking his decision to supply the Colonnas family with fraudulent counsel is a principled one. Again, “the high priest […] who put me back into my first sins,” (Canto XXVII, 71). We would do well to heed Dante’s advice; he understood that, in a society that denies personal responsibility, self-harm and even violence toward others flourishes. The latter claim is especially plausible in light of the situation in Florence during Dante’s time. Many of the damned in the Inferno are historical figures, who are guilty of political crimes. None acknowledge any responsibility for their actions; repentance is never even attempted. In Canto XXVI, Dante denounces the wicked in Florence with an impassioned invective against his homeland. He writes, “Rejoice, Florence, since you are so great that on / sea and land you beat your wings, and your name / spreads through Hell!” (Canto XXVI, 26). What has been the result of the debauched Florentines’ rule? Decades of bloodshed. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, Florence and its environs were tortured by factional conflict. The Black and White Guelphs battled for control over much of northern Italy. Sufficed to say, violence, fraudulence, and a disregard for human life accompanied their power struggle. This sort of behavior is characteristic of a society that divorces responsibility from the individual. Unfortunately, many credentialed modern thinkers seek to build such a society.

Michael Gazzaniga, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, claims that free will is an illusion; this assertion undermines moral responsibility, which he paradoxically seeks to uphold. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Gazzaniga devotes but 200 words to free will’s refutation and urges the reader to simply move on. He writes, “neuroscience reveals that the concept of free will is without meaning […] with its [neuroscience] ever-increasing mechanistic understanding of how the brain enables mind, suggests that there is no one thing in us pulling the levers and in charge. It’s time to get over the idea of free will and move on,” (Gazzaniga). This explanation is wholly inadequate. Neuroscientists have not come to a consensus concerning the existence of free will. To portray the neuroscienctific community’s diverse range of opinion concerning the existence of free will as uniform and conclusive isn’t just disingenuous, it’s dishonest. Moreover, we fail to see how any notion of responsibility can survive in a deterministic world. Determinism claims that external circumstances beyond the individual’s control, dictate human action. Thus, assigning praise or blame to actions over which we have no control is a futile exercise. Despite Gazzaniga’s insistence on determinism’s validity, he maintains that somehow we are responsible for our actions. If we have no agency, why go to such great lengths to construct an arbitrary system of social responsibility? Here the determinist is forced into becoming a compatibilist, for all agree that our modern way of life – finely developed systems of law, government, economics – collapses without a system of punishment and reward. Yet as we will see, divorcing free will from responsibility imperils the latter.

Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

After (unsatisfactorily) denying free will, Gazzaniga goes on to espouse a philosophy that shifts the burden for responsible behavior from the individual to “society.” Moderns would do well to see – as Dante did – the necessary connections among free agency, responsibility, and justice. Gazzaniga claims, Responsibility exists at a different level of organization: the social level, not in our determined brains,” and, “holding people responsible for their actions remains untouched and intact since that is a value granted by society […] For the social network to function, each person assigns each other person responsibility for his or her actions,” (Gazzaniga). Much is incorrect in these two brief sentences, not to mention the article as a whole. First, Gazzaniga mistakenly thinks that society can confer values. This is not the case. Only individuals within a society can do that. “Society,” a word Gazzaniga does not take the time to properly define, even though its exact meaning is so fundamental to his argument, does not do much of anything without human agents. Concerning his second assertion, relying on “society” (to wit, other people in a given society) to assign responsibility, as illustrated in Guido’s damnable actions, is a recipe for disaster. A person can justify any and every action if others are ultimately responsible. In such a society, accountability shifts away from the individual and is thrust into the hands of the collective. As experience tells, a shared, collective obligation is too easily disregarded. When everyone is compelled to determine everyone else’s responsibility, no one is ultimately accountable. If Gazzaniga’s compatibilistic philosophy is followed authentically, depraved, dissolute people who deny personal responsibility will only multiply. One only has to look to medieval Florence for evidence. In light of this, it’s irresponsible for modern thinkers – like Gazzaniga – to propagate the falsehood that free will is an illusion and responsibility is a societal construct.

This criticism raises the question, what benefits does the notion of individual responsibility bestow upon society? The advantages of understanding of being in the world have been hinted at, but they merit further discussion. In a culture that espouses individual responsibility, we act with the knowledge that a reward or punishment will follow. An individual is responsible in the sense that he should be made to answer for his actions, good or bad. He even knows what sort of consequence, either good or bad, will follow a given action. Thus, if the correct system of rewards/punishments is put into place, individuals can be deterred from undertaking certain harmful actions. They will also be encouraged to act agreeably, knowing that their actions will be praised. This system leads to greater well being for individuals in the society. It holds the individual responsible, thereby fortifying the foundations of a healthy society, namely, one that respects human life. This is the ideal.  Our system of law approaches this ideal asymptotically. It respects human dignity by punishing murder, thievery, and fraudulence, while rewarding honesty, charitable giving, and mutual respect. Gazzaniga’s philosophy of collective responsibility is in direct opposition to this humane system of justice.

As Hannah Arendt, an august 20th century political theorist, wrote, “where all are guilty no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits.”

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Ed. Robert M. Durling. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1996. Print.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. “Free Will Is an Illusion, but You’re Still Responsible
for Your Actions.” Chronicle Review (2012): n. pag. Print.